The Bostonians

December 11, 2019

bostoniansFor cinematic adapters, the novels of Henry James are among the toughest nuts to crack. The long­time moviemaking team of Merchant-Ivory (consisting of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant) apparently wants to keep trying.

They made a version of The Europeans, with Lee Remick and Lisa Eichhorn, a few years ago. That film disppeared quickly, but they’re at it again, this time with a cast guaranteed to provide a higher profile.

The Bostonians stars Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave in James’ tale of the struggles of suffragettes in New England in the 1870s. Redgrave is an intense suffrage leader; Reeve is her distant cousin, a lawyer from Mississippi whose views on men and women are only a few hundred years behind the times.

Between them comes Verena (Madeleine Potter), a girl with a mesmerizing stage presence, who makes speeches on the women’s movement. Redgrave takes her in and grooms her to be the figurehead of the suffrage movement. Reeve simply falls in love with her, and pursues her in a gentlemanly fashion during the next couple of years. He offers her a choice: the cause or marriage. Not both.

Without the visual equivalent of James’ elegant, biting prose, that question can get pretty thin when stretched over two hours – and it does. The Bostonians is a stately, stuffy, respectful adaptation; Ivory and company have basically transcribed a number of scenes from the book and filmed them. They certainly haven’t found a fresh, purely cinematic approach. Perhaps its most glaring fault is the absence of Jamesian wit.

If the film as a whole strikes me as a misfire, I still found much of it engrossing. The locations and the actors are watchable enough. Reeve, for the first time outside Superman, is actually pretty good – the Southern accent is unfaltering, and he physically embodies the kind of traditional backward-looking gentleman of the times. Redgrave has less to do, in part because the film has shifted the emphasis toward Reeve’s character.

Wallace Shawn hustles through as a conniving reporter who would like to harness Verena’s gift as a moneymaking commodity; Nancy Marchand does a clever turn as the matriarch of a family whose son is smitten with Verena; and Linda Hunt (the tiny actress who won an Academy Award last year for The Year of Living Dangerously) is a superb choice to play an independent-minded doctor who regards both the suffragettes and Reeve with equal amusement.

One quibble: Newcomer Madeleine Potter seems slightly miscast as Verena. She gives a good performance, but there is something soft about her – an unconvincing element when she is meant to be a riveting and inspirational speaker. Verena’s talent never quite gets across the screen, and Reeve’s enchantment with her is thus a bit puzzling.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

The Merchant Ivory team would make another James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, which was the stiffest of the bunch. This review is fairly humdrum but I think I’m right about the movie; still, I’d give it another look after all these years. This came during the period when Reeve was deliberately steering as far away as possible from Superman, an admirable instinct that helped ground his career after a few years.


The Year of Living Dangerously

November 9, 2012

There’s this passage in the dialogue of The Year of Living Dangerously that can be turned back on the film itself so ironically that few reviewers—including this one—will be able to resist quoting it. Radio correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is taken to task by his photographer/travel guide/guru, Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), about an overly melodramatic news report the green journalist has made concerning the terrible conditions in current (1965) Jarkarta, Indonesia, a place that is sinking into poverty as it teeters on the edge of civil war. Guy’s piece was overblown, says Billy; Guy hammered points home and repeated himself, instead of letting the facts speak for themselves.

That happens to be an on-target assessment of the trouble with YOLD—things that would be better left for the viewer to discover on his own are carefully explained in the dialogue, and sometimes more than once. This practice is particularly discouraging with regard to the character of Billy, the mystically-inclined mulatto dwarf (and it’s especially frustrating because it mars a fascinating performance by Linda Hunt, a screen natural).

Billy’s observations—noted in a kind of diary, on which we eavesdrop—get flakier and more pretentious as the movie goes along, spelling out plot points as well as character motivations. Maybe director Peter Weir thinks this relieves him of some of his story-telling duties; and perhaps that explains why this narrative is so uncompelling. Weir goes for atmosphere instead, and the story starts going astray—at its own languid pace.

Even the love story, between Hamilton and gorgeous British Embassy attaché Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) gets lost in the woozy ambience, although there’s a good sequence when Jill decides to give in to Guy’s suggestions of romance, and she walks down a street in the warm Jakarta rain; she’s soaked to the bone when she confronts Guy in the hallways outside his office, and it gives a special weirdness to the love scene that transpires. That kind of special weirdness has been a trademark of Peter Weir’s films in the past; The Year of Living Dangerously has a disappointing shortage of such strategies, which I guess has a lot to do with why it’s not my favorite Year.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

I did see this film again a few years ago, after reading the novel on which it’s based, and liked the movie very much. I think Weir’s ability to create his mysterious evocation of place and space was the deciding factor in my positive re-acquaintance with the film, although there’s a lot to be said for the human presence of Linda Hunt, and also Gibson-Weaver, a handsome duo. I still remember David Ansen writing in Newsweek (a writer I often felt in tune with back then) about the movie-movie gratification of the two stars finally getting into the clinches and laying some serious osculation on each other. He didn’t put it like that.